Plexus Corp., a global leader in complex product design, manufacturing, supply chain and aftermarket services, is partnering with the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering to advance the college’s already strong focus on interdisciplinary education.
Headquartered in Neenah, Wisconsin, the company has committed $240,000 over the next five years to the college’s Grainger Engineering Design Innovation Laboratory, a makerspace that is part of the college’s ecosystem of fabrication facilities. The lab is composed of the makerspace, machine shop, Student Org shops and a set of interdisciplinary programs. Lab Director Lennon Rodgers says the funds will help support pipeline programs and design initiatives, including the college’s Engineering Summer Program, first-year design course, interdisciplinary capstone projects, and the makerspace’s free workshop series.
Plexus President and CEO Todd Kelsey says the makerspace’s interdisciplinary foundation and the opportunities it provides to engineering students for active, hands-on learning make it and the College of Engineering attractive choices for continued support. Those opportunities provide students with the skills they’ll need to succeed upon entering the workforce.
“UW-Madison is one of the primary universities that we not only recruit from, but support in other ways—such as being involved in the electronics lab and the makerspace,” he says. “We believe it’s critical to do our part and give back to the university that has provided us an abundance of highly educated and talented engineers.”
Under Rodgers, the makerspace has enhanced its interdisciplinary footprint. Among those efforts is an interdisciplinary pathway for engineering students that builds upon existing offerings, such as the College of Engineering’s first-year design course. In that class, new engineering students work on teams to tackle semester-long projects—some of which have real-world applications beyond the class itself.
The pathway also adds new elements—notably, a capstone project in which student teams work across disciplines on tougher design challenges. The College of Engineering’s capstone projects stand out as models for programs around the nation but traditionally have been siloed within individual academic departments.
“In this new capstone, we give our students the space, budget and the tools to work effectively in interdisciplinary teams and to reinforce the value of this collaboration,” says Rodgers. “Right now, we have an interdisciplinary pathway that starts in pre-college and progresses through the undergraduate experience with the capstone project, and can even conclude in a master’s degree.”
Rodgers says that in his communications with representatives from hundreds of companies that recruit UW-Madison engineers, one message, in particular, came through loud and clear. “About 90 percent said they value interdisciplinary skills,” Rodgers said. “It’s very clear that interdisciplinary experience is one of the most valuable things engineering students can have. That translates into helping them get jobs once they’re finished here.”
Plexus prioritizes engineers with interdisciplinary skillsets and the ability to be productive, dynamic team members.
“Being able to work collaboratively, solve problems and think analytically are skills that Plexus values in engineers, and it is important that students are given the opportunity to develop these competencies prior to beginning their career,” Kelsey says. “UW-Madison provides students the opportunity to develop technical and competency-based skillsets that they can use to contribute to the organizations which they ultimately join.”
The company’s involvement with the makerspace has extended beyond monetary gifts; for example, in fall 2020, Plexus engineers assisted with design reviews for the interdisciplinary capstone project. For that project, biomedical, electrical and mechanical engineering students worked with partners at UW Health on a telemedicine project for remote prescription medication delivery.
It’s because of projects like that, Kelsey says, that Plexus wants to support future generations of engineers. Engineers are innovators, creators and problem-solvers by nature, he says, and UW-Madison has a long history of educating leaders who can and do change the world.
“I am amazed by the training and education engineers are currently receiving, specifically from UW-Madison,” Kelsey says. “It is incredible, and essential to move the world forward and to make our economy grow.”
Author: Alex Holloway